NEW YORK – Will Paula Deen go the way of Michael Richards or Charlie Sheen? One unleashed a bigoted tirade and is no longer a lovable, easily employable clown. The other carved a brand out of crazy – reported hotel N-word rant and all – but is back on TV earning millions.
With her Food Network shows gone and her endorsements crumbling, is Paula Deen, in a word, toast?
A week after Deen’s admission of using racial slurs in the past surfaced in a discrimination lawsuit, pop culture watchers, experts in managing public relations nightmares and civil rights stalwarts who have tried to help other celebrities in her position see a long, bumpy road ahead.
Paula Deen has, I would say, taken an irreparable hit because she had this appearance of being more or less a nice older woman who cooks food that’s bad for you. That in her own way sort of made her lovable, said Janice Min, editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter in Los Angeles.
But this presents a whole other picture of, Wow, maybe she’s just an old racist white southern woman.’ That image is hard to shake off for a large chunk of people, Min added.
In celebrity terms, where do Deen’s troubles land her in the crowded hierarchy of misbehavior?
I think it’s right up there with Mel Gibson, Kopp said. One of the first rules of crisis is to apologize thoroughly and completely and immediately.
Deen, 66, and her brother, Bubba Hiers, are being sued by Lisa Jackson, a former manager of the restaurant they own in Savannah, Ga. Jackson accused them last year of sexual harassment and a hostile environment of innuendo and racial slurs.
According to a transcript of Deen’s deposition, an attorney for Jackson asked Deen whether she has ever used the N-word.
Yes, of course, Deen replied, though she added: It’s been a very long time. And she said she doesn’t use the word anymore.
She then bailed on Today, posted criticized online apologies then was dropped by Food Network.
An apology, at this point, isn’t enough, said Dara Busch, executive vice president and managing director of Rubenstein Associates in New York, a top PR company.
She has to find ways to prove that she’s not that way any longer, Busch said.
Howard Rubenstein, who founded Busch’s firm, helped facilitate Richards’ apologies to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson after the comedian was caught on video using the N-word and making a lynching reference onstage against a black heckler. Rubenstein declined an interview.
Gibson’s work life imploded after he claimed Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world and was caught berating his ex with the N-word, though he still directs.
It used to be very simple rules: You say something that’s offensive, that’s hurtful and there’s a formal apology, an explanation, and depending how severe it is, you do a good deed, you volunteer, whatever, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. There used to be a clear path. It used to be over. That was before the Internet.
Sharpton knows that we’ve all said things we’ve regretted, and he’s not particularly worried about what words Deen used long ago. She’s being condemned for now. There’s a live lawsuit accusing her of racism and bias now, and that’s what I’m concerned about, he said.